May 24, 2017

In Rolling Stone Defamation Case, Magazine and Reporter Ordered to Pay $3 Million


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Sabrina Rubin Erdely, left, with a lawyer outside the Charlottesville, Va., courthouse last month. Ms. Erdely is the author of “A Rape on Campus,” the Rolling Stone article at the heart of the defamation suit. Credit Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress, via Associated Press..

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A federal jury on Monday ordered Rolling Stone and one of its writers to pay $3 million in damages to a University of Virginia administrator over a discredited article two years ago about a supposed gang rape at the university.

The jury in Charlottesville, Va., had already decided on Friday, after a two-week trial, that Rolling Stone; Wenner Media, its parent company; and Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the article, were all liable for defamation in a case that centered on faulty reporting and a failure to apply basic fail-safes in editing.

After deliberating for less than two hours on Monday, the jury of eight women and two men decided that Ms. Erdely was liable for $2 million of the total, and Rolling Stone and Wenner Media for $1 million. In her suit, filed in May 2015, the administrator, Nicole P. Eramo, had asked for $7.5 million in damages.

The jury found that assertions made in the story, as well as public statements made after publication by Ms. Erdely and Rolling Stone, were made with “actual malice,” the legal standard for libel against public figures. To meet that standard, a publisher must be found to have known that the information it published was false, or to have had reckless disregard for the truth.

Rolling Stone has not said whether it would appeal the verdict. Scott Sexton, a lawyer for Rolling Stone, said on Monday that according to its agreement with Ms. Erdely, the company was obligated to cover “all liability arising out of the article.”

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Ms. Erdely and her legal team declined to answer questions after the decision was read.

In its decision, the jury made no distinctions about what portion of the damages was tied to the article and what was tied to other comments made by Ms. Erdely and Rolling Stone after publication.

Outside the courtroom on Monday night, Deborah J. Parmelee, a teacher who was the jury forewoman, read a brief statement from the jury that said, in part: “With careful consideration of the facts in evidence for determining damages, the jury made its determination. We were proud to execute our civic duty.”

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Nicole P. Eramo, former associate dean of students at the University of Virginia, filed the lawsuit. Credit Steve Helber/Associated Press

Ms. Parmelee declined to answer any further questions about the case.

The article, “A Rape on Campus,” was published in November 2014 and intensified national attention on sexual assault of college students. But the article was soon called into question for its reliance on a single source, identified only as Jackie, in describing a brutal gang rape at a fraternity party near the grounds of the university, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 and is steeped in tradition.

After a report by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism reprimanded Rolling Stone for failing to take fundamental steps to verify Jackie’s account, and after the Charlottesville police said they had found no evidence that an episode like the one described had occurred, the magazine retracted the article and removed it from its website.

Ms. Eramo, the former associate dean of students, sued for defamation, saying that she had been made out to be the “chief villain” in the article, which portrayed the university administration as being indifferent to the threat of sexual assault on campus. In one of the story’s most scalding passages, Jackie said that Ms. Eramo had told her, “Nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.”

Testifying on Monday in the damages hearing, Ms. Eramo wept repeatedly as she recounted personal and professional difficulties after the article was published. She spoke of a loss of self-confidence and a change of her job at the university.

Some members of the jury could be seen dabbing tears during Ms. Eramo’s testimony.

Rolling Stone’s lawyers pointed out that since the article was published, Ms. Eramo has gotten two raises, and her salary is now set at $113,000 a year. They also noted that a report from the United States Department of Education backed up the magazine’s general findings by criticizing how the University of Virginia handled sexual assault cases.

David Paxton, a lawyer for Rolling Stone, also stressed how much the article had already damaged the magazine’s reputation.

“This has been a badge of shame,” he said, “for Rolling Stone and Ms. Erdely.”

But Ms. Eramo found that response wanting.

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“It took two years and all this to get an apology,” Ms. Eramo said, gesturing around the courtroom. “And I still don’t believe it is a real apology. The regret I see is that they’re in the position they’re in today.”

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Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/08/business/media/in-rolling-stone-defamation-case-magazine-and-reporter-ordered-to-pay-3-million.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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